Most of British business appears to want to stay in the EU but out of the integrationist drive — but the question is whether that can be achieved.
"The vast majority of businesses across the UK want to stay in the single market, but on the basis of a revised relationship ... that promotes trade and competitiveness," said John Langworth of the British Chambers of Commerce.
He was among 56 British business leaders who issued a public letter to the Times of London on Thursday complaining about demands from Brussels and calling for "a more competitive, flexible and prosperous European Union that would bring more jobs and growth for all member states."
Growth is certainly something that Europe is craving. The eurozone as a whole is in recession and figures Friday are expected to show the British economy, the EU's third-largest, halfway back to its third recession in four years.
Open Europe, a London-based think tank, says that 48 percent of the UK's goods and services exports are to the EU. The single market keeps down the cost for Britons of doing business with the EU as well as the price of goods imported from the EU for purchase by ordinary British citizens.
Membership gives British citizens the right to live and work anywhere in the EU — unlike citizens of other countries, who must seek complicated and often hard-to-get residency and work permits.
Mark Gray, a spokesman for the EU, said the bloc affects almost all aspects of the lives of Britons, from the quality of the water they swim in at beaches or in pools, to the quality of the orange juice they have for breakfast and the conditions in the offices where they work.
But many Britons — like citizens elsewhere in the EU — see the union as a faceless beast imposing rules and spending on needless things and threatening sovereignty.
Britain's relations with Europe have been strained since the end of World War II. It did not join the European Steel and Coal Community, the forebear of what would later become the European Union, in 1951.
Britain later realized there were benefits accruing from joining up with some of its wartime friends and foes, and joined the evolving European bloc in the 1970s. It has stood against many efforts to forge closer ties, notably the creation of the euro, but was at the forefront of the drive to create a single market.
Don Melvin in Brussels and Martin Benedyk in Davos, Switzerland, contributed to this report.
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